5 Lesser Known Psychological Strategies to Boost Immunity
Words / Sophia Auld
Your immune system is a vast network of interacting cells and chemicals that are performing constant surveillance of your body. “Many people think the immune system gets activated only when it’s under threat,” says Dr Warren Stanton, a teacher and counsellor with a PhD in human thought processes. “Our immune system is operating all the time … In its uncompromised form, it’s always on the lookout to sort out anything that comes into your system that threatens your continued existence. Then it takes action.”
Under normal circumstances, your immunity works effectively to protect you from infection or abnormal cell growth. However, factors such as chronic stress, poor diet, smoking and lack of sleep can compromise your immune status, making you prone to illness and infection.
While information is available about physical habits to support immune health, the psychosocial aspect of immunity is lesser known. Here are five lesser known ways to boost the immune system using psychological strategies – no needles required!
Develop healthy coping strategies:
Whether you’ve been intentional about developing them or not, you’ll have particular strategies you use to cope with the demands of daily life. Some of these may be unhelpful, like drinking alcohol to unwind after a hard day.
Learning to relax, sleep well and deal with stress is particularly important, according to Dr Judy Lovas, a psychologist specialising in psychoneuroimmunology.
“Slow, deep breathing can reduce the death rate of immune cells and enhance the immune system’s ability to protect against cardiovascular disease,” Dr Lovas says. “Yoga and meditation can slow down the shortening of telomeres in our chromosomes. Telomeres are the protective ends on each chromosome that act like plastic tips on shoelaces that stop them from fraying.”
Cultivate social support networks:
Social relationships can influence one of the immune system’s vital functions, according to Dr Lovas. “Studies have shown that people who are married with close friends and participate in community activities have lower levels of inflammatory markers in their blood compared to people with fewer social relationships [that] are more isolated,” she says.
Researchers have identified how social relationships influence the activity of genes. “They found that people who were more isolated had greater pro-inflammatory activity … and those who were less isolated had more anti-inflammatory activity in their genes,” says Dr Lovas. “This can translate to how effectively we combat disease, infections and inflammations.” Cultivating a strong network at work is a great example of putting this strategy into action.
Practice positivity about your health:
Dr Lovas highlights the importance of perceptions in influencing immunity and physical function. Studies have shown that nerve activity when imagining a bodily movement or actually performing that movement is very similar. “What we perceive in our ‘mind’s eye’ can have a significant effect on our body,” she explains.
“Immune function in someone who perceives necessary cardiac surgery as a frightening, expensive, inconvenient ordeal is lower than someone who perceives the surgery as a fantastic, positive opportunity.” Dr Stanton also emphasises the importance of your perceptions in maintaining a sense of wellbeing. He discusses the difference between your nature and your thinking mind, with your innate sense of wellbeing coming from your nature. “It’s actually what we do with our thinking mind that interferes with that.” He recommends a practice of mindfulness, which involves tuning in to your sense of self. “It’s a way of life. … You flip the switch and start living from that innate sense of wellbeing. … You’ve then got to set about changing your belief structures.”
Do a belief inventory:
Most of us are feeding our minds a junk food diet of unpleasant thoughts, Dr Stanton says. Many of our decisions are motivated by fear because we’ve been taught that fear is good for us.
“There’s a pandemic of fear in our culture,” he says. “If you maintain a fear about anything, it’s compromising your continued health and immunity.” There is a distinction between fright and fear, Dr Stanton notes. Fright is an instinctive response that protects us from danger, whereas fear is a learned reaction.
But we can learn to overcome fear.
Enlist the help of a trusted friend or counsellor to help you foster more positive ones.
Establish medical support systems:
There is research showing strong positive relationships between a healthcare team member’s communication skills and a patient’s health.
“Studies conducted during the past three decades show that the clinician’s ability to explain, listen and empathise can have a profound effect on biological and functional health outcomes as well as patient satisfaction and experience of care,” according to information from the Institute for Healthcare Communication. “The connection that a patient feels with his or her clinician can ultimately improve their health mediated through participation in their care, adherence to treatment and patient self-management.”
This means finding healthcare professionals you feel comfortable with is paramount to achieving the best from any treatment.
Whatever your choice of health professional, search until you find one that helps you feel at ease. One that explains their advice clearly and gives you control over your treatment options is ideal. If you feel uncomfortable or pressured, look elsewhere.
Remember, your immunity is constantly working to detect and combat disease. Following these steps will give that system a fighting chance to keep you healthy.